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A semi-colon is a full stop and a comma, one above the other.
Semi-colons – avoid them!
My advice, in fiction, is to avoid using semi-colons.
Semi-colons on the page give the impression of a more serious piece of writing and could become a barrier to accessibility for some readers.
However, if circumstances demand the use of a semi-colon, make sure you use it correctly.
The role of a semi-colon
It might help to think of the semi-colon as having one of two roles:
- A weaker version of a full stop.
- A stronger version of a comma.
Whichever role, a semi-colon is always used to separate two equals.
Separating two clauses
Clauses which could otherwise be complete sentences, that could have stood alone but work better side by side, can be conjoined, using a semi-colon. The result? It narrows the gap.
Come by tomorrow; I’ll be ready by then.
Often, a full stop will work just as well instead – and it becomes two sentences.
Come by tomorrow. I’ll be ready by then.
You might even consider turning the first half into a question or an exclamation.
Come by tomorrow? I’ll be ready by then!
A conjunction could be used to join the two sentences, rather that using a semi-colon.
The bus came early; I missed it.
The bus came early and I missed it.
A transitional expression might also be used to link the two parts:
Eat what you like; however, the bacon’s in short supply.
Separating items in a list
The two equal parts might also be the items in a list which is so complicated, using commas does not work (because the individual items required commas themselves).
The menu looked inviting: a choice of main courses including a roast, a fish fish and a vegetarian option; four desserts, served with ice-cream, pouring cream or clotted cream; a cheese tray; and coffee and mint.
Such complicated lists are better presented as a bullet list.
The menu looked inviting:
- a choice of main courses including a roast, a fish fish and a vegetarian option;
- four desserts, served with ice-cream, pouring cream or clotted cream;
- a cheese tray; and
- coffee and mint.
This bullet list carries the same punctuation as was used in the original sentence. However, such bullet lists can be punctuated with fewer punctuation marks. This is explained in a later lesson.
Semi-colons – avoid them!
Yes. There are so many other ways of conveying the same material.
Some readers are put off by semi-colons, especially in fiction. However, if you use them with grammatical correctness, and intent, good for you!